Thursday, May 21, 2015

21/5/2105: The Darker Side of Transparency?

World Bank paper published earlier this month and titled "The Dark Side of Disclosure: Evidence of Government Expropriation from Worldwide Firms" raises some very interesting questions about the relationship between corporate transparency and government incentives.

The paper by Liu, Tingting and Ullah, Barkat and Wei, Zuobao and Xu, Lixin Colin (May 4, 2015, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 7254:  looks at "the effects of voluntary accounting information disclosure through auditing on firm access to finance, exposure to corruption, and sales growth." The authors use data for more than 70,000 firms in 121 countries.

The authors find that "…disclosure can be a double-edged sword" with overall effect depending on institutional capital present in a specific country.

"On the one hand, audited firms exhibit a slightly lower level of financial constraints than unaudited firms." This is in line with traditional theory whereby voluntary transparency increases information quality about the firm, but also signals self-selection of better-governed and better-performing firms to the markets.

"On the other hand, audited firms face a significantly higher level of corruption obstacles." Which is really surprising, until you understand the underlying logic.

"The net effects of voluntary information disclosure on firm growth are negative, which can largely be explained by the fact that most of the countries in the sample are developing countries where institutions are weak. The beneficial effect of disclosure increases as a country's property rights protection improves. The qualitative results are robust to considerations of the endogeneity of auditing and to alternative measures of corruption and financial constraints. The findings reveal the dark side of voluntary information disclosure: exposing firms to government expropriation where institutions are weak."

In other words, in more institutionally-advanced economies, voluntary disclosure is a positive factor for the firms, even she we control for self-selection bias. But in countries where institutional capital is weak, the effect is the opposite: in presence of corrupt and accountable governments, disclosing corporate information to the markets can trigger greater effort by the government to expropriate from the reporting firm.

There are serious ramifications for policy and development economics from this study. Traditionally, we tend to push more transparency and more disclosure for the firms operating in institutionally-weak emerging markets. In doing so, we may be aiding the predatory governments who, thus, gain greater ability to corruptly capture firm assets and/or profits over and above legally required taxation. This, in turn, strengthens the corrupt state institutions and government, instead of pushing them toward adopting more rule of law-styled reforms.

Beyond this, the study results suggest that at least in some setting, less transparency and greater ability for the corporates to operate within private information markets can actually be a good thing.

What is interesting is that in public domain, very little attention is paid to this issue. The results of this study, however, are broadly supportive of Acemoglu and Johnson ("Unbundling Institutions", Journal of Political Economy 113(5), 949–92005, 2005) work on the overwhelming importance of constraining government expropriation in facilitating economic development, ex ante other reforms.

On the other hand, transparency is value-additive in the advanced economies setting, where institutions are sufficiently high quality to preempt (or at the very least, diffuse significantly) the emergence of actionable incentives for state expropriation and information-led corruption.

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